The incident of the passionfruit vine; on smacking children

passionfruit vine

I pushed my daughter backwards into a bed of nasturtium. It was the single worst moment of my parenting career.

The situation was…I was hammering up wire netting against the fence for a failing passionfruit plant. Elka was drinking from her bottle, wearing a sweet little red and white polka-dot hat. “What you doing, Mama?” she asked, as she does a thousand times a day. She started to play with the sick passionfruit plant, playing…pulling.

“Stop, Elka, please.” I warned. She didn’t.
‘Stop! Elki, the plant is very sick. You need to stop.” She pulled harder. I pushed her away from it, and she fell back, her little face white with shock – she was haloed by the nasturtium bed and her red bonnet. Her bottle was in her hand. She began to cry. It took me a couple of moments to realise what I had done, and respond.

“Oh, my god, my darling girl, I am so sorry,” I cried, and wrapped her in my arms. She sobbed, and stroked my face. Between blubbers she asked, “Are you OK Mama? What’s wrong?” I will never forgive myself, I thought. She is so pure. So innocent and kind.

This was me getting frustrated and resorting to physical harm. If you know me personally, you will know this is against everything I believe in and preach about. Physically harming a child is never, ever acceptable. You are here to protect your child, nurture them and love them into fruition.

My heart collapsed into my chest and I soberly tried to meditate the pain away. It wouldn’t pass. It was stuck in my chest – a fat, ugly rock, wedged.

I didn’t think I would ever write about this incident, as I buried it under the shameful layers of Me. How could I verbally protect the rights of children in mini speeches to friends and turn around and push my child away? How would I face the contradiction?

The point of writing it down is to uncover my shame, and discuss a topic I feel very strongly about.

Last year, I was shocked to read an article that 85% of people polled in Australia admit to hitting their child and only 8% regret it. Really? Are we so stuck in the past? Caning children at school has long been unacceptable. In other developed countries, smacking children is illegal. In Australia, it is illegal to assault another adult, but it is not illegal to smack a child. The discrepancy between harming an adult and a child is actually stipulated. How can this be?

Author Kerri Sackville was on Sunrise soon after this article came out. She was saying there was a difference between lightly tapping a child’s bottom to help stop them spinning out – in fact, sometimes it’s the only way – and whacking a child. Her role was to advocate the rights of parents who choose to hit their children. The Sunrise crew made a little joke about the fact that little old New Zealand actually have a law against hitting children – they failed to mention that most European countries have the same legal standards as New Zealand.

If I had any doubt about the public view Kerri and the Sunrise team were representing, my fears were confirmed at a local playgroup. Three women stood around chatting about mothering tactics (as you do at playgroup). One very large woman wearing high-heeled black patent boots proudly announced to the circle that her three-year-old had recently learnt the meaning of “One, two, three, smack…” Apparently, the second time “One, two, three…” began, the dear little boy fled to tidy his room before the “smack”. Discipline by fear? I guess it’s one way of parenting, and sadly in Australia it is the normal, accepted way of disciplining children.

As usual, I agree with Pinky McKay on the matter. In Toddler Tactics, Pinky writes:

According to other studies into the effects of physical punishment, although children may comply in the short term, they do not learn the desired behaviour (remember, discipline means ‘to teach’). It is highly likely that as your children push the boundaries further, you’ll find yourself hitting harder as your frustration levels escalate. There is also increased evidence to suggest that physical punishment may be linked with more aggressive or antisocial behaviour, emotional damage and diminished cognitive ability. In review of several longitudinal studies published in the Psychologist in 2002, psychologist Dr Penelope Leach found smacking related to a five-fold increase in toddler non-compliance; a four-fold increase in assaults on siblings by children under ten; double the rate of physical aggression in school playgrounds among six-year-olds; and an increased likelihood if substance abuse and criminal activity in adolescence. (McKay, P. 2008. Toddler Tactics. p. 63).

Once upon a time, it was acceptable for teachers to cane children in school. It was also acceptable for husbands to occasionally hit their wives if they stepped out of line. Thankfully, neither of these things are accepted in Australian contemporary society so I live in hope that our feelings about smacking children as discipline will also change.

After Kerri’s Sunrise interview, I wrote on her Facebook page that I was saddened by the views she expressed. In my mind, she was waving the green flag for hitting kids and indirectly condoning child abuse. No parent is perfect, and perhaps, like me, we will succumb to frustration and irritation and do something we will regret. The point is though that social conscience needs to change to see smacking children as unacceptable. It has happened in other countries – in The Netherlands, for example, where my husband is from, smacking children is frowned upon. It is not something you would boast about at playgroup. If the bar is raised, then at least we have an ethical standard to aspire to. Occasionally, as humans we will slip and make a mistake, but my hope is that we will at least strive to look after and protect our children. Nurture their tender souls. Do as nature intended.

My toddler has had some challenging behaviours lately, like deliberately peeing on the floor, or on her car seat while we drive. I could get angry, and scream and shout and possibly hit her in an attempt to teach her a lesson. But I know there is no point. All I am teaching her by acting in this manner is that it is OK to scream and shout and hit. Kids learn by example. If we are kind and soft, they will follow us. If we say please and thank you, so will they. If we are frustrated and anxious, they will mimic our behaviour. Although I get frustrated and want to scream and shout, I bite my tongue and think about what will actually be effective, which is to stay calm, and explain to her that it is not OK to pee haphazardly and with intention. In toddler-eeze: Pees go on the toilet, otherwise Mummy has to do more laundry, and floor mopping.

The passionfruit vine incident is a good lesson for me. The pain the event caused me is etched so deeply into my skin that, although I will try, I can’t forget it. It is a reminder that I am capable of frustration and violence towards a child, as much as it pains me to say so. When the moment heats up, I need to cool down, and reflect on what is good for my child, and good for the situation. Violence is not the answer, ever.

Image credit

This post has been selected for 2013 BlogHer Voices of the Year.

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  • Emily Brien

    Lovely message Zan. Thanks for being brave enough to share your personal stories, your intelligent views and admirable values. Keep it up!
    Best wishes to you, Greg and Elka. Love Em xx

    • Thanks Em. I’m slowly learning to be more confident to say certain things. Honesty is hard work I’m realising! Hope you guys are really well. It’s been ages since we caught up. Thanks for responding! Zan xx

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  • Lauryan

    Thank you for being brave enough to share this story! I felt your pain as real as it were mine, I have been there too many times and each time my children love me back from the feelings of shame, self-directed anger and heartache at my own actions I feel how pure they are, that they somehow deserve more than me! I hope that as some of keep showing love and understanding to all children, that they will pay it forward as they grow into adulthood!

    • Thank you Lauryan for sharing. It makes me feel better to hear other experience these emotions. I guess it comes down to the fact that we are human, and do make mistakes, and all we can do is aspire to something better. Zannix

  • Patrick

    I find it interesting when so much talk of how terrible it is to give a child a memorable slap on the ass correlates to the upturn in unruly behaviour rampent in a great percentage on children today.

    There is a big difference between a light smack on a child’s bum and child abuse, or beating.

    Sometimes there is nothing more effective than a light smack, and some children will take your time outs take the removing of toys, privileges and anything else you care to think of and not give one iota for it.

    I was caned in school, did me not one bit of damage and stopped me from doing XYZ again. Ask any teacher the single biggest problem in Australian schools, the lack of discipline as there are simply none at school and none at home.

    Go and visit a child in Ireland where the world has not gone mad and bath yourself in the lovely behaviour of them, the respect they give to all adults and other children.

    Maybe if the child knew a consequence to an action, you would not of been driven to pushing the poor child into the flower bed. Just a thought.

    Many countries are not suffering from what is the modern rude, obnoxious nagging child with no respect for anyone or anything, I travel greatly throughout many countries and AUS, US and unfortunately the UK are the most rampent countries with these issues, not all of it is discipline some is social economics and children having children.

    I am not saying that your instance would not play on your mind and feel for you, but not smacking children when all else fails sorry does not wash with me.

    Countries are suffering from too much PC and pressure from the minorities, creating a breakdown of social fabric, and this is the major issue and breakdown of social fabric.

    • Hi Patrick,

      I want to thank you for engaging with the argument, as I know that
      corporeal punishment of children is a very sensitive and emotional
      topic – it is emotional for me as well, and a difficult debate to
      engage in, so thank you for coming forward.

      In response, I just want to point out that the three countries you
      mention – US, UK and Australia – are three of the few developed countries who do
      not legislate against corporeal punishment. Twenty years ago, physical
      punishment of children was widely accepted. Today, based on research
      and law reform, views have changed and so has the use of corporeal
      punishment. In Sweden, corporeal punishment of children was legislated
      against in 1979. At first, it was not a popular decision, but very
      quickly, research showed that Sweden as a nation had accepted
      alternatives to corporeal punishment and the majority stood against
      it. Since 1979, a large number of European countries and other
      countries throughout the world have legislated against corporeal
      punishment – you can see the list here:

      Research consistently finds that corporeal punishment of children is
      associated with higher levels of aggression against peers, parents,
      siblings and spouses. Research has also been able to discern
      aggression precipitating corporeal punishment and corporeal punishment
      precipitating aggression, and has found that people with antisocial
      behaviour had a reduction in aggressive behaviour when harsh
      punishments were reduced (amongst other evidence). There are many
      studies that have found that physical punishment increases the risk of
      negative developmental outcomes. Research has not successfully found a
      link between physical punishment and positive developmental outcomes.

      Whilst many people who were physically punished do not suffer
      negatively, the argument is a bit like smoking does not cause cancer.
      While not everyone who smokes gets cancer, smoking does increase the
      risk of cancer, in the same way that corporeal punishment increases
      the risk of negative developmental outcomes.

      In my mind and my experience, there are many alternative forms of
      discipline that are more effective than physical punishment. Talking
      with a child, empathising with their experience and demonstrating
      positive forms of behaviour are three examples that work for us. If we
      do not want violent, aggressive children, we ought not teach them
      through our actions that violence and physical aggression is OK. In
      the end, the only thing smacking serves is to frighten a child, cause
      harm and alleviate parental frustration and aggression.

      As Dr Lopez-Duran writes “Being free of physical harm is the most
      basic human right, and children should not be exempt from it.” Like
      Lopez-Duran I feel that corporeal punishment is not only an illogical
      form of discipline to use, as research clearly shows it is ineffective
      and has negative outcomes, but it is also morally unacceptable.

      If you would like further reading, here are links to a few very
      intelligent, well-researched articles.

      Regards, Zanni

  • Lauryan

    For Patrick – was deeply moved by your comments and I think that Zanni was kind and generous in her reply to you, I feel where you are coming from as I came from there not too long ago – I know that hitting a child doesn’t help, it doesn’t stop the behaviour long-term, it doesn’t teach the child to make correct choices based on an inner compass. All it does is make everyone feel unhappy in the moment. For me, that is NOT how I want to remember my parenting journey and not how I want my boys to remember their childhoods.

    Everywhere there is a blog post, an article or news report on something to do with corporal punishment of children (in and out of the home) you will see reams and reams of comments in a similar vein. From adding up the comments you get a fair representation of the reported figures, that still more than 90% of parents choose to hit their kids. You cannot tell me that the 10% of families that do not hit are directly responsible for the kids of the 90% of families that choose to parent with force.

    And to be honest – I do not WANT my children to automatically respect and obey all adults. This places them in great danger of being hurt and abused throughout their lives! Respect is taught by example – it is not something that you can demand simply based on age, social or political stature or any other means of measurement. Children will respect those who show them respect – we teach them what we want them to learn by our own behaviour.

    How do you hit a child and then teach them that it’s wrong to hit another person? How is it okay to hit a child, a vulnerable, small and still developing being but it’s not okay to hit another adult at home, work or out in public?

    I hope you find the strength to search yourself, to stretch your mind and to consider the possibilities of a world raised with true respect, without fear of their beloved parents – a world raised in peace and mutual respect.

    • Hi Lauryn,

      Thank you for your support, and for your profound thoughts. I agree that your parenting journey is what you make it. The thoughts and actions you have now will have consequences, so we need to think long and hard about how we parent, who we want to be as parents and who we want our kids to be.

      It’s a great point that children shouldn’t automatically obey and respect. Fostering respect comes through setting examples, like you say. When we are respectful, our children are respectful. When we are kind, our children are kind (generally speaking!) We need to earn children’s respect and trust as much as we need to earn other adult’s respect and trust.

      Just seeing how attitudes have changed over the last 20 years in many countries throughout the world gives me a lot of hope that in my life time, corporeal punishment will be Old Hat and completely unacceptable, just as we do not condone domestic violence or any form of physical assault against another adult. Social conscience about many topics has changed, and our position on corporeal punishment can change too. Once upon a time slavery existed and was accepted by many….

      It’s a debate worth having, that’s for sure. Many of us were hit as children, and though we don’t all wear the scars, when there are much more effective and positive alternatives, why smack?

      Thanks again, Lauryn. 🙂

  • Zanni, good luck on maintaining your cool… your daughter is lucky that you’re willing to explore other methods of child discipline. I used to say, “Discipline with Love”. If you have enough love in your heart your words will impress your child far more than a smack, high or low.

    • Thank you Linda for your comments.
      I believe Disciplining with Love is the best approach. When we feel affectionate and warm towards our children, our actions follow…I completely agree with you.

      Zanni x

  • There is a big difference between choosing to hit a child and reacting instinctively.

    We were talking about instinctive pushing in dance class once. The first time your partner elbows you in the face (accidentally, of course), you will push back and you can’t control it. As it happens again and again, you learn to breathe through the pain and dance on.

    I’ve never intentionally hit my children, but I have instinctively pushed them back when they were playing rough and caused me sudden pain (not intentionally). Your situation was similar (only the pain was emotional not physical). Please don’t be so harsh on yourself. We do learn to control our instincts, but only with practice.

    • Thank you very much for your thoughts…and for making me feel better 🙂 Your words are so very true. I think that is exactly where I am at…reflecting on my instincts and practising how to find kinder and gentler ways of being with children. I do have a temper. I flare. But having a child has help me temper it and it is actually a much happier and healthier state for me.

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  • steven m. mitchell

    You do not know me, but I found comfort in reading your blog today. I shared it on my timeline(Facebook) after doing a quick google search on parental discipline.

    The part about peeing on the floor made me laugh, but the seriousness of this article is why I appreciate your kind words. My son sometimes pees on the floor, but he is two years old. I wonder how some parents can react negatively to a young person who is learning.

    The same way when children say no, or test parents, they are learning. They are not trying to hurt the parent in anyway.

    Much love,
    Steven M. Mitchell

    • It was so nice to read your comment this morning, Steven. Thank you. You reminded me why I write about what I write about. I am so pleased to hear your views about your son, and your reactions to his little ways. The world needs more people like you.
      Thank you so much for coming by, and reminding me why I do this thing.

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  • What a fantastic post, Zanni. I’m with you 100% and have been advocating for the anti-smacking law since I became a mum. I too had a moment like your passionfruit vine incident when Lew was really little. As anti-smacking as I was I lost it one day and gave him a smack. The only smack I ever gave him but I still shudder when I think of it. He is 13 now and jokes about what a mea mum I am to have smacked him once. He really appreciates how I’ve parented him and that I wasn’t a smacking kind of mum. Cute. Thanks again for writing this and being so honest. You sound like an amazing mum:) x

  • A wonderful piece, Zanni – so deserving of the recognition by BlogHer.

    I am part of the 85% but not part of the 8%. Like you, I was simply reacting and was deeply ashamed in the immediate aftermath. I learnt very quickly that physically reprimanding my children was a momentary outlet for my frustration and completely ineffective as a form of discipline.

    After Ziggy was born, Luca, being not yet 3 himself, would occasionally play too roughly and seeing him make his baby brother cry made me insane with rage. It was such a hard time for me, for all of us, as we were all learning. Boundaries were pushed and finding myself without the necessary parenting skills, I would resort to creating fear. I wasn’t smacking but there was a lot of shouting going on. I look back on that time with the heaviest of hearts but I think, I hope, I have been able to grow as a parent since then.

    I have made so many mistakes, I still make them. But I now know that the kind of parenting that feels wrong for me (and that at my core I always knew I was against) is also the least effective way to improve the behaviour of my children.

    For the record, I am frequently complimented on the beautiful manners of my children and have seen for myself their capacity for kindness and empathy. Somehow, mistakes and all, I am doing something right.


    • Parenting is so much about learning Angie, and we are, after all, human. I often think that children bring up all sorts of things for us because we spend so much time with them. Before children, our selves were not under surveillance 24/7. We could be crap, and cranky and crazy without judgement or consequence. With children, the pressure is on around the clock. In many ways, I think this makes me nicer over all, but when I am feeling crappy, or am angry at my kids, the guilt eats my up from inside.

      You are so gorgeously aware. It’s no wonder your kids are complimented so often. Thanks for coming by. xxx